Review: Candyfreak by Steve Almond

50906Blurb:

A self-professed candyfreak, Steve Almond set out in search of a much-loved candy from his childhood and found himself on a tour of the small candy companies that are persevering in a marketplace where big corporations dominate.

From the Twin Bing to the Idaho Spud, the Valomilk to the Abba-Zaba, and discontinued bars such as the Caravelle, Marathon, and Choco-Lite, Almond uncovers a trove of singular candy bars made by unsung heroes working in old-fashioned factories to produce something they love. And in true candyfreak fashion, Almond lusciously describes the rich tastes that he has loved since childhood and continues to crave today. Steve Almond has written a comic but ultimately bittersweet story of how he grew up on candy-and how, for better and worse, the candy industry has grown up, too.

Candyfreak is the delicious story of one man’s lifelong obsession with candy and his quest to discover its origins in America.

Review:

Candyfreak is the most delightful book about candy that also happens to record the author’s deteriorating mental health. What a combination: Goo-Goo Clusters, Snickers, Valomilks, and Big Hunk bars all alongside ample doses of liberal guilt, childhood neglect, failure to commit emotionally in relationships, and a dooming fear of failure! Steve Almond is a clever writer who decides to explore America’s dying Mom and Pop candy industry in order to distract himself from his own depressing life.

So basically this book is the literary version of binge-eating when you’re sad. 

It’s pretty great, laugh out loud funny at times while also being terribly somber. As you will learn, in the early 1900s, the candy bar had its heyday. Across America thousands of provincial factories were pumping out regional candy bars. Years pass, a couple of world wars break out, and the zany, homegrown candy industry, like so many other industries, sublimates into three international conglomerates: Mars, Hershey’s, and Nestlé. Grandma and Grandpa’s favorite concoctions disappear to be replaced by national brands like Snickers, Three Musketeers, and the ubiquitous Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar. 

It’s a sad story but not very original. Local stores are swallowed up everyday by corporations. But Almond recognizes that candy is special. We have a more intimate relationship to candy than most products. A favorite candy bar is equivalent to Proust’s madeleine: the precise crunch of the chocolate between your teeth can recall a whole barrelful of hazy childhood memories. Maybe your mom always bought you a certain treat if you were good during grocery shopping or maybe your grandparents could always be depended on having a certain chocolate goodie in a bowl on their kitchen table when you came to visit. 

Candy is simply about pleasure. So candy memories are tight little balls of happiness mixed with nostalgia and thus, according to Almond, worth preserving. And he’s right. Almond embarks on an American roadtrip stopping at small, family-owned candy factories that have somehow managed to stay in business and continue serving their regional delicacies that have charmed for generations. It’s fascinating to see candy production on a small-scale; it’s devastating to realize how many of these century-old family businesses won’t see the other side of this century; it’s salivating to read pages and pages about nougats, taffies, marshmallows, chocolates, nuts, and caramels. 

Candyfreak is a book for freaks—anyone desperately obsessed with anything, candy or not, will recognize herself in Almond’s effusive romp through America’s candy factories. Just be careful. You may find yourself on a boutique chocolatier’s website, considering whether the $20 price tag plus shipping for a box of only four chocolate bars is a good deal. After reading Almond’s ecstatic descriptions of these sugary delicacies, you will become another full-blown candyfreak.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

89723Blurb:

The Lottery, one of the most terrifying stories written in this century, created a sensation when it was first published in The New Yorker. “Power and haunting,” and “nights of unrest” were typical reader responses. This collection, the only one to appear during Shirley Jackson’s lifetime, unites “The Lottery:” with twenty-four equally unusual stories. Together they demonstrate Jackson’s remarkable range–from the hilarious to the truly horrible–and power as a storyteller.

Review:

Read this book for one reaction: gasping “whaaaaaat!” or perhaps “whaaaaat?” (punctuation varies) after reading the final sentence of every story.

Shirley Jackson is the indisputable master of the “whaaaaaat!/?” Some stories end ambiguously, leaving you scrambling back through the pages searching for a clue or alternately racing to open Google to read others’ wise analyses. Other stories end completely and absolutely unambiguously, leaving you to question not what actually happened but to wonder how such a terrible ending could come to pass. (“The Lottery,” Jackson’s most famous tale, falls in the second type.) But no matter if the ending is ambiguous or unambiguous, what I want to emphasize is that Shirley Jackson knows how to end. I have now read dozens of her short stories and one of her novels and I am convinced that I know of no author who finishes every piece with such decisive flourish. 

It’s an incredible skill, knowing how to end something. I often find short stories forgettable. Any novel of 300 pages will indubitably engrave itself in my mind by mere virtue of the hours required to read it. A story of less than 20 pages, however, is at a clear disadvantage. A short story must shock to be memorable. Luckily for us, Jackson has one setting: shock the reader. On the last page, or more often, the last sentence. 

But her shocking endings are of the mild, ungratuitous variety. Two of my favorite stories–“The Daemon Lover” and “Like Mother Used to Make”–finish with the protagonists questioning their sanity and autonomy. They don’t run screaming to mental hospitals; rather, they stay quietly and desperately in their homes, wondering who they are and if this is–if this truly can be–their life.  To me, such an ending is much more powerful than any louder alternative. 

There is something so mundane to Jackson’s writing, which makes the fact that most of the stories are categorized in the horror genre more, well, horrifying. Because it suggests that the quotidian is horror. Jackson is wonderfully aware of the fact that the everyday lives of the normalest of the normal are the most frightening things in the world. No need for ghosts or murderers, everything you need is right there inside of us.

For Jackson, horror is the casual racism of a small New England town, the irrepressible distress of a 30 year old unmarried woman searching for a husband, the monotonous daily routine of a department store salesperson, a badly misbehaving child and his oblivious parents, the terrifying anonymity of an individual in a metropolis of millions. In short, horror is real life.

These stories have a rare rereadable quality. I know that I will reread this collection for the rest of my life, and at the end of every story, for the rest of my life, I will say “whaaaaat!/?”

5 out of 5 stars

Review: Sunshine by Robin McKinley

8088Blurb:

There are places in the world where darkness rules, where it’s unwise to walk. Sunshine knew that. But there hadn’t been any trouble out at the lake for years, and she needed a place to be alone for a while.

Unfortunately, she wasn’t alone. She never heard them coming. Of course you don’t, when they’re vampires.

They took her clothes and sneakers. They dressed her in a long red gown. And they shackled her to the wall of an abandoned mansion – within easy reach of a figure stirring in the moonlight.

She knows that he is a vampire. She knows that she’s to be his dinner, and that when he is finished with her, she will be dead. Yet, as dawn breaks, she finds that he has not attempted to harm her. And now it is he who needs her to help him survive the day..

Review:

For my sanity, I need to stop reading any books that are marketed towards fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Because spoiler alert: none of these books are ever like Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Sunshine is about a normal girl–seriously cannot express how numbingly normal this girl is–who, guess what!, is nicknamed Sunshine (gag) and finds herself tangled up in a supernatural battle after being kidnapped by vampires. 

Sunshine wakes up every morning at 4am to bake cinnamon rolls for the family bakery. Sunshine likes to spend time in the sun. Sunshine spends pages and pages describing her family, her friends, her cinnamon rolls, her cherry tarts, her apple pies, and her bakery’s customers even though it’s terribly uninteresting and nobody cares. Sunshine does not like to talk about the fact that she’s a powerful sorceress or the fact that she’s embroiled in a war between vampires and humans or the fact that she is party to a very tense, strange, and unexplained sex scene with a vampire midway through her story. Sunshine doesn’t like to talk about anything that is of actual importance or interest. Sunshine makes cinnamon rolls at 4am every morning, though, and Sunshine loves to talk about that. Sunshine manages to kill a vampire with a butter knife, which should be nigh impossible and definitely merits some investigation, but Sunshine doesn’t really mention it afterward. Sunshine is too busy baking cinnamon rolls at 4am.

Sunshine and Sunshine are deathly dull.

2 out of 5 stars